Literature You Should Know: Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse

Civilization is under attack.  An army masses to destroy Christians and their hated book learning, to plunder their wealth and ravish their women.  Unless these savages are stopped, the lights may go out for good… but the Christian forces are few and scattered.  Hope for victory seems dim.

c6352This plot sounds like it’s ripped from the headlines, and it could have been—twelve centuries ago.  The rampaging enemy in this case is the Viking horde, and the story itself is The Ballad of the White Horse, G. K. Chesterton’s fictionalized account of the Battle of Ethandune (read here by Malcolm Guite).  The title refers to the White Horse of Uffington, which now-discounted legend held to commemorate Alfred the Great’s victory at Ethandune.  Published in 1911, this poetic mixture of fact, legend, and fantasy inspired English troops through two world wars and can still bring encouragement to those of us who feel our way of life is under assault.

Book I opens with the state of Alfred’s England, moving from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Danish onslaught against the Saxons.  The barbarians beat back Alfred to Athelney, “and no help came at all” until Alfred receives a vision of the Virgin Mary.  But she has no soothing platitudes for him:

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

G.K. Chesterton

Our reaction would probably be, “Oh, THANKS!”  But not only does Alfred understand what Mary’s saying, Book II declares he does have “the joy of giants, / The joy without a cause.”  His three allies also respond favorably to Mary’s message, agreeing to fight a battle that they seem certain to lose.  Even the White Horse, grey and overgrown from neglect, presents a discouraging sight at the beginning of Book III.  Yet Alfred dares to walk unarmed toward the Danish king’s camp and, once captured, to play his harp and sing of English victory.  The Danish earls mock him and praise destruction and nihilism, since even their gods will die, but Alfred answers, “You are more tired of victory, / Than we are tired of shame…. / We have more lust again to lose / Than you to win again.”  The Danes can only laugh.

This exchange of taunts doubles as a scouting mission, however, and Alfred studies the Danish camp’s layout as he leaves at the beginning of Book IV.  After an interlude where Alfred agrees to watch a peasant woman’s fire, muses too long on the plight of the poor, and gets slapped for accidentally letting one of her cakes burn, his allies arrive to find him laughing at himself.  “This blow that I return not,” he declares, “Ten times will I return / On kings and earls of all degree,” and with that, he leads his army into battle.

The White Horse

The fight that follows in the next three books showcases Chesterton’s love of paradox.  First blood is struck by Colan the Celt, who throws his rusty sword to kill Earl Harold and to whom Alfred in turn offers his own sword.  The English take their toll on the Danes, but the Danes drive them back, kill Alfred’s captains, and think the battle is over.  At last, however, Alfred rallies the Saxons with a horn blast and a victory-or-death speech, has another vision of Mary, and leads the final charge against the Danes with the cry, “The high tide and the turn!”  Between the Saxons’ sudden onslaught and a surprise rear attack from the Celts, the Danes are utterly defeated.

But the story doesn’t end there.  In peacetime, Alfred still has to deal with courtiers who want him to drive the Danes out of Britain entirely rather than allowing them to keep the Danelaw, and the White Horse still has to be scoured regularly to keep it white and free of weeds.  And when the Danes again raid the south of England, the aged Alfred warns that barbarians will always attack free peoples and the worst are the ones who come not with swords but with books.  Chesterton closes Book VII with a juxtaposition of descriptions, weeds trying once more to overwhelm the White Horse while Alfred retakes London.

Freedom isn’t free.  Do we have “the joy without a cause” to defend it even when all seems lost?

Literature You Should Know: Lewis’ On Stories and Other Essays

People who think of C. S. Lewis only as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia or as a Christian apologist forget—if they ever knew—that he was a professor of English literature, first at Oxford, then at Cambridge.  As such, he published a sizable number of critical essays and reviews and gave talks and interviews on the 127231b0648bab4aac8c5aacdcdf2741subject.  Twenty of these appear in On Stories and Other Essays on Literature.  Apart from specific reviews of and tributes to authors like J. R. R. Tolkien, H. Rider Haggard, and Dorothy L. Sayers, the collection examines what story is and what makes it work.  It thus contains useful advice for any writer, regardless of religious or political persuasion, especially those who want to write works with any kind of message.

“On Stories” focuses on one of the most overlooked aspects of storytelling:  why one would choose to tell (or read) one particular story and not another.  Among his many examples, Lewis cites the 1937 adaptation of King Solomon’s Mines, in which he felt the screenwriter had ruined the story by replacing the original ending, involving the quiet horror of being trapped in a crypt, with an action-packed volcanic eruption and earthquake.  He concedes that this ending might be more cinematic but argues, “There must be a pleasure in such stories distinct from mere excitement or I should not feel that I had been cheated in being given the earthquake instead of Haggard’s actual scene….  Different kinds of danger strike different chords from the imagination.”  (Paging Peter Jackson!)  By contrast, David Lindsey’s Voyage to Arcturus, which Lewis admits is lacking in style, nevertheless captures a spiritual element that most pulp “scientifiction” of the ’30s and ’40s missed.  “On Science Fiction” similarly criticizes stories that are sci-fi only because they’re set in the future or in space but would otherwise fall into conventional genres like romance or thriller.  Rather, Lewis argues, the futuristic setting “is a legitimate ‘machine’ if it enables the author to develop a story of real value which could not have been told (or not so economically) in any other way.”

CS Lewis
CS Lewis

The danger, as Lewis sees it in “On Stories,” is that the plot of any given story is a sequential series of events that has to serve as a net in which to catch some wholly non-sequential idea, and it’s very easy for the author to miss the target.  Yet sometimes a given plot or genre is the only net that can catch a given idea.  Lewis explores this point in more detail in “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” and “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” both of which cite Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories.”  In “Sometimes,” drawing on Tasso, Lewis posits a distinction between two writing impulses, one arising from the author as author and one from the author as human or citizen.  The Author cares only about the story material, which carries with it implications about form.  The Man, however, is concerned about everything else, including the story’s message.  Only when the two work together can a good story result.  Here Lewis cites his experience in writing the Narnia books, which began with pictures that coalesced into a story that needed the form of a fairy tale.  Only after the Author had gotten that far did the Man assert himself by looking at the potential for fantasy to present a moral message in ways the audience would accept.  Had he tried to reverse the process and start with the moral, he would have failed.

“On Three Ways” contrasts this method, in which a fantasy for children was the only form the story could take, with an approach that views children as a generic target audience who all like the same juvenile things.  Not only is the latter method condescending, its proponents are usually wrong about what kids like, and “a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.”  Finally, to the argument that fairy tales are too scary, Lewis answers, “Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage….  Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let the villains be soundly killed at the end of the book”—sound advice even when writing for adults!

Literature You Should Know: Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf

I was already planning to write on J. R. R. Tolkien’s collection Tree and Leaf this week before I read Sean 394422da6bda916b75635832890205fdMalone’s review of Snowpiercer, but Sean’s discussion of internal logic only confirmed my choice.  If there’s one book every writer of science fiction and fantasy absolutely must read, it’s Tree and Leaf.  Several different editions have been released over the years, but all contain two vitally important works: On Fairy-Stories and Leaf by Niggle.

“On Fairy-Stories” began as a keynote address Tolkien delivered in 1937, around the same time he published The Hobbit and began writing The Lord of the Rings.  The first part of the essay addresses what fairy-stories are, though Tolkien gives no more precise definition than that they are stories about Faërie; misconceptions of the Fair Folk; the muddle critics make when discussing the origins of fairy tales; and the modern mistake of thinking that fairy tales are only for children.  Tolkien moves beyond mere criticism, however, when he turns to the topics of how fairy tales are written and why they are worthwhile.  He never cites Sidney’s Defense of Poesy, but his view of literary creativity is in a similar vein.

unnamedTolkien defines human creativity as sub-creation.  Only God can create something from nothing, and Tolkien calls the world God created the Primary World.  Yet humans, made in God’s image, have the right to use our sub-creative powers, defined as Art, to form Secondary Worlds from the material we find in the Primary World.  Here Tolkien quotes from his poem “Mythopoeia,” which appears in full in recent editions of Tree and Leaf.  Written for C. S. Lewis shortly after the famous conversation on Addison’s Walk in 1931, “Mythopoeia” attacks Lewis’ assertion at the time that myths are “lies breathed through silver.”  Tolkien counters not only that myth is a vehicle for truth but also that myth-making is a human right—“we make still by the law in which we’re made.”  And “Leaf by Niggle,” Tolkien’s only deliberate allegory, celebrates the idea that God may someday grant us the great gift of seeing our Secondary Worlds given primary reality.

Yet Tolkien argues in “On Fairy-Stories” that the purpose of Art isn’t just the author’s own enjoyment.  A well-made Secondary World is one into which author and audience alike can enter.  The Secondary World therefore needs to have “the inner consistency of reality” that allows the audience to believe that what the author says is true within that world.  If disbelief has to be suspended, the art has failed.  Tolkien notes,

Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it.  But that is not enough…. To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft.  Few attempt such difficult tasks.   But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art:  indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

Tolkien3_01Fantasy is the most difficult genre, in Tolkien’s view, because it’s characterized by “arresting strangeness” and is vastly different from the Primary World.  Yet that’s also what makes fantasy worthwhile and is a consolation in itself.  It carries with it Recovery, not just renewed perspective but renewed mental and spiritual health from “regaining a clear view… ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them.’”  Fantasy also allows Escape, not from reality as a whole, but from the elements that stifle our spiritual health and growth, and thus can offer the consolation of satisfied desire.  Best of all is the Consolation of the Happy Ending, the good turn Tolkien calls eucatastrophe:

In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace:  never to be counted on to recur.  It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure:  the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

Such elements, Tolkien argues, should not be scorned because they take us away from “real life”—for who is more hostile to escape than a jailer?

Literature You Should Know: Sidney’s Defense of Poesy

In the wake of the English Reformation, Puritan leaders began denouncing forms of entertainment they considered sinful, especially theater and poetry.  When one former playwright addressed an anti-theater treatise to Sir Philip Sidney, Sidney responded with An Apologie for Poetrie (later retitled A Defense of Poesy), the first work of its kind in English literature.  Sidney’s arguments about the purpose of poetry—by which he meant all forms of creative writing—still resonate for content creators who want to smash cut our postmodern culture toward a healthier direction.

Sir Phillip Sidney
Sir Phillip Sidney

Sidney applies the term poetry broadly because it derives from the Greek verb poiein, “to make.”  He points out that many poets don’t write verse, and many people who write verse don’t deserve to be called poets.  More modern forms of prose and scripted fiction would therefore also fall under the heading of poetry in Sidney’s view.  For him, creativity is the hallmark of poetry, far more than any given medium or genre.

Throughout the Defense, Sidney presents the thesis that poetry’s purpose is to teach and delight, and especially to teach by delighting.  Writing for a Renaissance audience, Sidney draws most heavily on classical literature, but he also hints at the Puritans’ hypocrisy with examples from Scripture.  When it comes to virtue, he argues, philosophy can present dry rules and history can furnish plain examples, but only poetry can combine the rule with the example in a way most people will enjoy.  And enjoyment is the key to convincing people to apply moral lessons to their own lives.  Sidney notes that even cultures that don’t have historians or philosophers still learn from their poets and storytellers.

Yet the message isn’t the only reason creative writing is worthwhile.  Sidney states that poetry’s the highest of the written arts because it’s the only one in which the author makes something new out of nature rather than recording what’s in nature.  As such, he argues, it’s also the highest expression of the imago Dei, the image of God in which all humans are made.  Because we’re created in the likeness of the Creator, the Author of history, what could be a more fitting human activity than making up our own stories?

Sidney then addresses the Puritan arguments against poetry, quickly dismissing those that are only mockery and agreeing to disagree with those who say that poetry’s a waste of time.  To the charge that poetry consists of lies, he points out that a lie affirms a falsehood to be true; scientists and historians can’t always avoid getting their facts wrong, but a poet never claims to be writing anything but fiction.  (And we all know how many documentaries and textbooks are riddled with errors and outright lies!)  Then there’s the objection that Plato banished poets from his republic, to which Sidney replies that Plato was really talking about poets who misused poetry to present harmful opinions of the gods.

apology-for-poetry-or-the-defence-of-poesy-sir-philip-sidneyThe one objection to which Sidney grants any credence is that poetry can be, and often is, abused to encourage the audience to embrace vice rather than rejecting it.   This debate continues today, whether we’re discussing the sexual content of television or music, railing against pro-statist movies, or arguing whether violent video games encourage violent behavior.  The problem, as Sidney sees it, is not “that poetry abuseth man’s wit, but that man’s wit abuseth poetry.”  He distinguishes between two types of poetic imitation:  eikastike, “figuring forth good things,” and phantastike, “which doth contrariwise infect the [imagination] with unworthy objects…. But what!” he adds, “shall the abuse of a thing make the right use odious?”  Even what we call fantasy—The Lord of the Rings comes to mind—can be eicastic in Sidney’s sense in that it encourages virtue.  Lines do need to be drawn; the trick is drawing them in the right places.

Later, Sidney notes that a large part of the problem with English poetry is that it’s badly written by classical standards, regardless of the content.  Nor is the quality problem limited to verse; he gives examples from plays and even sermons.  Conservatives, especially Christians, have been having this same discussion for years—since so much pop culture is dreck, is it enough to support good content, regardless of writing quality?  The solution, I think Sidney would argue, is to create better works, good writing that teaches a good message… or, as Mary Poppins put it, the “spoonful of sugar [that] makes the medicine go down in a most delightful way.”

In Praise of Westerns

“Never trust a man who doesn’t like John Wayne,” said the anonymous comment on Big Hollywood several years ago, perhaps the best advice I’ve ever seen on a blog comment forum.  That in itself is good evidence for the way The Duke’s legacy endures. That legacy isn’t limited just to Wayne’s pictures, either, nor to other classic Hollywood Westerns starring the likes of Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, Glenn Ford, and Audie Murphy.  Mini-series like Into the West and Hatfields and McCoys and coming attractions To Appomattox and Texas Rising keep the Western alive on the small screen, while the big screen brings us new stories such as The Salvation and Cowboys and Aliens and even reboots and remakes like the Cohen Brothers’ True Grit.

SPN_1145Nor is the Western’s influence limited to tales set in the 19th century.  Longmire and Justified keep alive the image of the Western lawman in the modern day—but so do Blue Bloods, where Frank Reagan isn’t far removed from Tom Selleck’s earlier turn as Orrin Sackett, and NCIS, where Mike Franks and Leroy Jethro Gibbs frequently live up to Tobias Fornell’s characterization of NCIS as “cowboy cops.”  Then there’s genre television.  Shows like Star Trek and Firefly are deliberately conceived as space Westerns, but Stargate: Atlantis falls into many of the same story patterns by virtue of being a town/fortress on the frontier (of the Pegasus Galaxy).  And the writers of horror hit Supernatural have likened it many times to the Western milieu with Sam and Dean Winchester as last-of-the-breed cowboys—not to mention beloved father figure Bobby Singer, played by Deadwood alumnus Jim Beaver, whose favorite movie is… The Searchers.

As for audience, to cite only one print example, Western magazine Cowboys & Indians not only remains in print after twenty years but continues to increase its circulation every year, no doubt aided by feature articles interviewing a host of stars of stage and screen, from Brad Paisley to avid horseman William Shatner.  Shows like The Magnificent Seven retain an active fandom presence online.  And even when canon has nothing to do with the Western genre, a search of fanfiction archives will more than likely turn up at least one popular Wild West alternate universe.

The Western clearly isn’t dead.  So why is Hollywood so insistent that it is?

“Never trust a man who doesn’t like John Wayne.”  The comment’s point wasn’t just about the man himself but about the virtues his characters and films represent and champion, and Supernatural’s writers—among others—have likened the Western to the medieval morality play, intended to teach the audience how to live a virtuous life.  Sir Philip Sidney argues in his Defense of Poesy that those who write creative fiction “do merely make to imitate, and imitate both to delight and teach, and delight to move men to take that goodness in hand, which without delight they would fly as from a stranger; and teach to make them know that goodness whereunto they are moved.”  Such an idea may be anathema in itself to “those who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20), but the specific virtues championed by the Western seem particularly ill suited to the message usually presented by Hollywood.

John WayneYou see, the Western hero, whether he’s Cole Thornton, Matt Dillon, Hannibal Smith, or John Sheppard, is an inherently decent man—not perfect, but honorable and brave, hard-working and kind, respectful of those who deserve respect (especially ladies), wanting to live in peace but willing to fight when wrongs need to be righted, and first to defend the defenseless.  Perhaps the most succinct summary of the code of the West comes from The Shootist: “I won’t be wronged; I won’t be insulted; I won’t be laid a hand on.  I don’t do these things to others, and I require the same from them.”  He’s also independent and willing to act the instant action is required.  Especially in an era when even the local sheriff might be hours away and Washington genuinely had no clue what conditions were like west of the Mississippi, people didn’t have time to wibble and waffle and hope for the cavalry to arrive on time.  To do so would mean almost certain death.

In short, as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, “The just man justices, / Keeps grace; that keeps all his goings graces.”  In the Western, heroes are just men, as are heroines just women, doing their best to live rightly and well in the face of hardship and lawlessness, with only God’s Word and their own conscience to guide them.  The justice and grace they keep in spite of it all are the reason the Western has endured, like the people whose stories inspired the genre, and will endure for generations to come.